July 2011

Research and development: a powerful tie bridging many nations

Report looks at steps countries are taking to boost their capacities in science, technology and innovation. 

In the aftermath of recent economic hardships and natural disasters, the world appears to many to be a rather dismal place. Yet at least from the perspective of a research scientist, that may not necessarily be the case. It is true that recent economic instability has brought a sense of unease to the research and development arena. But as described by a recent report from the secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even against such a bleak financial backdrop, advances in the globalization of scientific efforts hint that a better future is ahead.

Investing in R&D 

Realizing the potential that advances in R&D could have in jump-starting their economies, many countries have made a sustained commitment to invest in R&D. Interestingly, as described in the “OECD Science, Technology, and Industry Outlook 2010,” this parameter is multifaceted.

From a financial standpoint, government agencies long have been supporters of R&D, providing both competitively and noncompetitively awarded funding to support long-term endeavors. Intriguingly, many of the countries investigated in the report, including Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic, have shifted focus in recent years toward supporting infrastructure and encouraging merit-based (competitive) awards.

The financial contribution of the business sector to R&D is becoming more important globally. Among all countries analyzed, Israel stood out as having the highest increase in financial contributions to R&D by its business sector between 1998 and 2008, with Japan, Sweden, Greece, Portugal and Spain following close behind.

Finally, and perhaps less obviously, tax relief in many countries is becoming an important factor in R&D growth. This relief comes in several forms, including additional deductions from taxable income as well as deductions in payable taxes. True to the spirit of incentivizing scientific research, most countries offering tax breaks for R&D promotion increasingly have become more generous in this respect over the years.

Together, the financial contributions outlined above have allowed for broad expansion of research opportunities within the countries analyzed. For example, Slovenia established eight new centers for the advancement of nanotechnologies and health sciences, and Israel developed its own centers for advancement of R&D and innovation (ICORE).

How does a country decide which sector of the broad R&D umbrella to promote? Because the ultimate goal of research is to benefit society, the focus of R&D effort varies across countries, reflecting their citizens’ current interests. For example, as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, the U.S. allocated $26 billion for the development of clean energy technologies. In contrast, Japan focused its attention on regenerative biology with the goal of developing innovative pharmaceuticals and medical care technologies for its aging population.

Facilitating communication 

Besides contributing financially to research and development, many countries have realized that “innovation is not a process easily enclosed by national boundaries” and have made efforts at facilitating communication between scientists. This process is multilayered as well. On the one hand, many countries recently have invested in technologies essential to supporting knowledge announcement, communication and cooperation among research scientists. In this spirit, Denmark is developing what it hopes will be among the best high-speed broadband infrastructures in the world, and both Spain and Finland have opted to do the same.

Additionally, many countries are laying down laws and regulations encouraging transfer of ideas among scientists. In the U.S., for example, the National Institutes of Health require funded investigators to share their research via PubMed Central once it has been accepted in a peer-reviewed publication. Likewise, many members of the European Union report participation in the EU Seventh Framework Programme for Research and their involvement in European Research Area initiatives to access foreign knowledge and contribute to international research.

Welcoming foreigners

Finally, many countries are changing their immigration laws to facilitate the recruitment of successful talent from abroad. Denmark currently is optimizing procedures for faster acquisition of residence permits for selected foreigners; Norway is allowing foreign talent to start work on site even before immigration applications have been processed; and Austria, under its amended University Act of 2002, has mandated that all R&D-related job postings be listed not only within its local universities but internationally as well.

Investing in talent 

It should be pointed out as well that to retain successful scientists within their own borders, many countries are making efforts to improve education and mentorship opportunities for their youth. Canada, for example, recently has developed Synapse-Youth Connection, linking thousands of researchers at the graduate and postdoctoral level with high school students in an effort to support the younger generation in the pursuit of careers in R&D-related fields. The United Kingdom has developed the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network program with the same goals in mind. Finally, many countries, including Austria and Finland, have allocated funds for research opportunities for school-age youth in an effort to maintain a successful talent pool at home.

The current times may be hard, but a variety of efforts driving R&D domestically and abroad promise to sustain innovations and ensure a future empowered by technological discoveries.

Marina Pazin (marinapazin@gmail.com) is a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University.

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